Stories and Museums

One of the most difficult things to display in a museum is a good story. Sure, you can build a narrative around a few objects to make them stand out. You can even tell the story of these objects with text panels on walls but, in most cases, the stories seem to get overpowered by the objects on display.

There’s something incredibly powerful about objects, especially pretty ones, and sometimes it’s hard to look past something’s materiality to draw out the story that rests within. Peter de Bolla writes a lot about the ‘state of wonder’ which seems to surround some objects. He believes that, as human beings, some objects have the capacity to engage us on a purely aesthetic level, and entrance us with their beauty. I agree with him. I think back to the time that I first saw the Sutton Hoo helmet, and how it made me feel. At the time, I didn’t need to know about the object, who once owned it or where it was found, all I cared about was how pretty it was – like a magpie transfixed on something shiny. I called it the ‘oooh shiny, shiny’ principle, but I guess that ‘state of wonder’ makes it sound a little more professional.

However, the state eventually wore off and I was interested to learn more about the object. So, naturally, I read the text panel associated with the helmet. Sadly, I was left disappointed. It read something along the lines of “Anglo-Saxon, discovered at the Sutton Hoo burial site”. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but the narrative around the object was few and far between. I wanted more, I wanted to read something as engaging as the object. So, when I got home from the British Museum, I spent some time reading up about the mask. I learned that it originated in East Anglia, and that its design has a heavy Scandinavian influence. I also learned that the identity of the person buried there is debated, but that it’s believed to have been the burial site of an East Anglian King, probably Raedwald.

Eventually, I got to reading a few different articles about the helmet and the site in general. I found ‘The Sense of Being Seen’ by Howard Williams to be particularly interesting, because he discussed the helmet’s various motifs, like the boars and the dragon, and he linked their meaning to the person who would have worn it. For me, that’s the sort of stuff that I find most interesting. If I’m going to find an object’s narrative engaging, I want to be told about the flesh – not the bare bones.

However, I’ve been thinking about all of this for one reason, and that reason takes the shape of a 14th Century Knight of the Order of St John, called Gozon. In my books, Gozon is a bit of a legend. Historically, he was one of the Grand Masters of the Order, whilst they were based in Rhodes, and he is credited for leading the march to help King Constantine V of Armenia, who was being threatened by the armies of the Sultan of Egypt in the late 1340s. Oh, and he is also said to have slain a dragon.

No BS, people, a dragon. Now obviously he probably didn’t kill a dragon (because dragons don’t exist), but he may well have at least battled a large crocodile. Still, the details of the story aren’t really what I want to discuss. What I do want to discuss is the concept of the story itself, and how that should be put into a museum context. Here we have the opposite of the Sutton Hoo problem – there’s a story which could be wonderfully told, but not object to associate it with. I guess it would be a good ‘AV’ story – you could get a voice actor to narrate a few cartoons of a Knight fighting a dragon. But would that do it justice? Does the story of Gozon’s fight with the dragon need to have an object to be centered around? Like, for instance, the head of the dragon (which is said to have adorned the mouth of the gate to Rhodes until the early 1800s). That would be cool.

I guess that I don’t really have an answer. AVs are overused in museums these days, and I do think that objects are powerful enough to speak for themselves at times, without a noisy narrator yapping in your ear at least. I think that it’s important to strike a good balance between object and narrative, but I know how difficult that is. When you only have limited space, you don’t want to drown people with text. But, at the same time, you don’t want to over-stimulate them with a room full of clutter. I’ll keep thinking of how I could find that balance with the Gozon story… and maybe I’ll get back to you.

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